Tuesday, September 03, 2013

How can they fire the photographers? Easy.

Like many others, I was distressed to learn that the Chicago Sun-Times fired all 28 members of its photo staff, as the casualties include such cherished former colleagues as the Pulitzer-winning John H. White

“How can they do that?” asked a number of journalists, friends and readers who called or wrote to express their outrage.  “Yes, it’s awful,” I agreed. “But, actually, it’s easy.” Here’s why: 

Notwithstanding my profound personal respect for photojournalism and photojournalists, the fact is that relatively cheap, reliable and easy-to-use technologies like smartphones, Photoshop and Instagram make it possible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to shoot, sweeten and share a picture whenever the impulse strikes. 

The explosion in citizen-generated images has been, well, explosive. The number of photos published to the web is running this year at 530 million per day, or more than a 10,000% increase over the 5 million pictures put online each day when the iPhone debuted in 2007, according to Mary Meeker, a partner at the KPCB, a leading Silicon Valley venture firm. It is important to note that the chart below illustrates traffic at only Facebook, Flckr, Instagram and Snapchat. Plenty more images are turning up in lots more places. 

It’s not just photos. YouTube reports that 100 hours of new video are uploaded every minute, as compared with 10 hours of new video per minute back in 2007.  That, of course, is a tenfold increase. 

Even those who dozed through Econ 101 should know that rising supplies reduce the price that consumers are willing to pay for everything from apps to zucchini. For those who snoozed a bit too much, here’s what you would have heard: 

When a marketplace is flooded with a particular product or service, the primary factor determining the value of the item in question is how much of it is available.  Economists call this phenomenon “commoditization” and the affected goods and services are called “commodities.” Example:

Because one bushel of wheat is as good as another (the fancy word for this is “fungible”), the only matter left to decide in the fast and furious action at the Chicago Board of Trade is how much a bushel is worth at a particular point in time.  When wheat is in short supply, prices rise.  When there is a surfeit of wheat, prices fall. 

Now, it’s safe to wake up. We are going to talk about photographers again: 

The exponentially expanding supply of user-created images means we have come to the point that all but especially unique images are commoditized. As predicted here in 2007, this makes photographers “the most endangered species at our newspapers.” 

The explosion of content in the digital media, of course, doesn’t stop with images and video. It extends to news, information, opinions, self-published books, music, data and just about anything else that comes to mind. 

While the wave of user-generated content may be a bonanza for consumers, it is proving to be disastrous to the livelihood of professional content creators like the photographers at the Sun-Times. 

Once the managers of the Sun-Times concluded that they could get all the photos they needed at no additional charge from iPhone-packing staffers or the web, they summoned the photographers to a hotel ballroom in early May and fired them. The deed was copied rapidly by a small chain of papers in Georgia. And it is likely to be repeated again. 

To be sure, there are tons of journalistic and aesthetic arguments for why you cannot value a photo – or its taker – in mere dollars and cents. But we are talking business here. And all media companies are businesses that have to make ends meet, expressly including non-profit news ventures that intend to be around for the long term.  

The rules of natural selection require a company to make a sufficient profit to sustain the business from one year to the next. Otherwise, the business goes out of business. If profits are insufficient (or, worse, absent, as evidently is the case at the privately held Sun-Times), then managers have an unambiguous obligation to take the steps necessary to try to turn the red ink to black. 

The once-enviable profitability of newspapers has sagged severely since the industry’s aggregate advertising revenues began plummeting from the record $49.4 billion achieved in 2005. Today, ad revenues are less than half of what they were in 2005 – and still falling. 

When managers can’t turn around sales, the only other path to profitability is cutting expenses. The practice has been burnished to perfection at most newspapers in the last few years, where publishers have, among other things, scrapped Christmas parties, reduced health benefits, mandated unpaid furloughs, shrunk the newshole, outsourced ad production, eliminated TV books, cut newsroom staffing and/or abandoned seven-day home delivery. 

The axing of the photo staff was hardly the first economy employed at the Sun-Times, as the publishing company has sought profitability in the face of steadily shrinking advertising revenues. The paper’s many publishers over the years have fired staff, shuttered profit-challenged suburban editions and turned over printing and distribution to the Chicago Tribune, the paper’s arch foe. Even the outsourced printing arrangement has been troubled, according to media reports that the Sun-Times has been late in paying its bills.  The Sun-Times recently told the Tribune that it will terminate the agreement in 2015. 

While the elimination of the photo department at the Sun-Times was painful to behold, it is a logical outcome to the inexorable trends that are unhinging the legacy media businesses:  

∷ First, the various digital technologies have empowered anyone with a computer, smartphone, tablet, camera or (soon) Google Glass to be a publisher.

∷ Second, consumers are exercising that power with a vengeance. 

Before the days of auto-focusing and image-stabilizing digital cameras, photography was as much a science as it was art. To produce a great picture, photographers not only had to be in the right place at the right time but also had to make instant calculations regarding the speed of the film loaded in the camera, the amount of available light, the appropriate shutter speed and much more. Using viewfinders instead of digital displays, photographers had to approximate the composition of their pictures. In the days before rapidly advancing 35-mm. cameras, they didn’t have the luxury of squeezing off a series of shots in hopes of catching the action. They had to make a single shot or two count. And, of course, there was no Photoshop to fix your mistakes. 

In short, you had to know what you were doing.  

Today, anyone who can point and click can take a halfway decent picture. Maybe not a great picture. But, as the owners of the Sun-Times apparently believe, one that is good enough. (This Tumbler site, which compares and contrasts the photos of the Tribune and Sun-Times each day, would take issue with this thesis.)

While the epic surge of information includes equally epic amounts of drivel, you can’t blame digital entrepreneurs and profit-pressed publishers for using the ever-more-sophisticated digital tools at their command to extract a sufficient number of useful nuggets to put out what they hope will be commercially acceptable publications. And the web is the ideal place to scrounge up free content: 

Most of the photos and videos on the web are published openly, where they are easily discoverable through search engines and can be freely accessed for print, digital and broadcast use. Although the creators rightfully could demand compensation for the reuse of their original work, most are thrilled to see it published – and few are willing or knowledgeable enough to expend the time or money necessary to press a copyright-infringement case. Further, publishers and broadcasters can assert, quite legitimately in most cases, that the use of a newsworthy picture pulled off the web is fair use, and, thus, exempt from copyright protection in the first place. 

While a piece of clipart or a photo captured by a harried reporter on an iPhone may not be Pulitzer-worthy, the images can plug a hole on the website or tomorrow’s front page. So, yes, it is possible to get good-enough content to put out a publication.  

The question that cost-conscious publishers and broadcasters have to ask themselves, however, is whether “good-enough” content will be good enough to sustain the value of their franchises in the face of growing competition from the digital media.  

Grappling with some of the most extreme and prolonged financial challenges in the business, the managers of Sun-Times are betting that the occasional sub-par image won’t matter to readers and advertisers, let alone Pulitzer juries, whose approbation is not likely a major consideration in the paper’s business model. The Sun-Times brass evidently is reasoning – and not unreasonably – that few people walk up to a news stand to compare the photos in competing newspapers to decide which edition to buy.  

Unlike a new handbag or pair of shoes, newspapers are consumed as a matter of habit. In communities where there is only one newspaper – and that’s the case in most of them – the choice is even simpler: You either read the newspaper or not. 

In the absence of alternatives in the pre-digital era, it was a safe bet among publishers that their unique and inexpensive compendium of news, want-ads, sports, features, coupons, stock prices and TV listings could attract the large and valuable audiences that they – and, more importantly, their advertisers – wanted to reach. 

Today, the infinitely richer, unquestionably more convenient and usually cheaper flood of content coursing through the digital media has usurped the previously unmatched bundle of news and commercial information once delivered by newspapers. 

In other words, the digital media have commoditized news, entertainment and shopping. Except for a handful of technically recalcitrant individuals who still depend on print, no one needs a newspaper to be well informed and well entertained.  You only buy a newspaper if you want one.

How have publishers responded to this profound existential challenge? Not well. 

Unable to stanch the 50%-plus contraction in sales since 2005 and desperate to sustain a rough approximation of 20% and 30%  pretax profits that newspapers produced in their halcyon days, most publishers have watered down and hollowed out their products to the point that discerning readers can see that newspapers ain’t what they used to be. 

And recent research proves that newspaper readers are indeed discerning. A year ago, the Pew Research Center reported that only 29% of Americans had read a newspaper in the preceding day, as compared with 56% in 1991. In July, the Gallup Poll reported that only 9% of Americans identified newspapers as their primary source for news, as compared with 21% for the Internet and 55% for television.  

Publishers cannot be blamed for the latency of print, which puts newspapers at an insurmountable disadvantage to smartphones in quoting stock prices or covering breaking news. And newsprint can’t be faulted for failing to compete with the multimedia razzle-dazzle of a tablet.   

But publishers can be faulted for the perverse logic of thinking that they can compete with the growing array of digital competition by making their print – and corresponding web and mobile products, which generally mirror the content of print – less complete, less competent and less compelling than ever.   

The insidious and unrelenting erosion in the quality of the nation’s newspapers is not only painful to news professionals and dangerous to the health of our democracy. It’s also bad business, because, in the long run, inferior products hardly ever succeed. 


Blogger Unknown said...

Today, anyone who can point and click can take a halfway decent picture. Maybe not a great picture...

Therein lies the insidiousness. What has people worried is not that the photogs got laid off, it is because that clause could just as easily end with "...maybe not a great story" and then where are we?

Come to think of it, that idea works anywhere, "...maybe not a great surgeon". That sounds like fun.

The difference is one of intangibles, like skill and talent. Things that are hard to quantify on a spreadsheet and so are deemed worthless by those that count beans, but that ultimately matter so much in the end.

There is no question that Flickr, et al, are capable of showcasing incredible and stunning art. But what of the other 529,999,998 photos uploaded yesterday? Can you run a newspaper on lunch photos and drunk party pix?

More importantly, would you read one?

10:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


4:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The point of your blog is well taken Allan. However, I suspect the Sun Times problems go far beyond firing an entire staff of photogs including a Pulitzer Price winner.

I think this decision shows the current management has no commitment to quality.

They could have eliminated 20 of them and kept John White and four others and kept the quality of the product without having to now rely on what the reporters and readers provide for all of the images. In the end the owners of the Sun Times will likely make more moves that will even further diminish the product and will have to either fold or sell at what will likely be a low multiple.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

You said "But publishers can be faulted for the perverse logic of thinking that they can compete with the growing array of digital competition by making their print – and corresponding web and mobile products, which generally mirror the content of print – less complete, less competent and less compelling than ever." I've read copies of the new and improved Orange County Register. They're now providing more unique content than the Los Angeles Times and charging for it, either online or in print subscriptions. It appears they have taken your message to heart. What's your opinion of their strategy?

7:12 PM  
Blogger Greybelt said...

Has anyone really looked at the kinds of images in newspapers? Once you get past some news headline stories (with photos from AP, or grabs of video from the event, or images supplied by the event manager) you're left with headshots and images supplied by PR representatives. Do we need pictures of sports events in the same way we used to? "How can they fire the photographers?" Many if not all of the small papers in the US hired reporters, gave them a pad, a pencil, and a camera for decades now. Now the camera is digital or a phone. Frame grabbing of video is becoming more common. This is more a story about television and online video, not just event photography. We have not depended on newspapers to see what heads of state looked like for a very long time. Surprised this did not happen sooner.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

“We have a TV team making good-looking video,” Fellows said. “Look at new players in the space; you can see videos are badly lit, jerky, and it’s an enormous difference. We have that advantage. It’s expensive to gather from scratch. A lot of advertisers are coming in because there’s not much high-quality video being produced.”

That is Bloomberg's Trevor Fellows, head of ad sales for Bloomberg Media explaining why quality matters in attracting advertisers, and earning high ad rates for editorial videos.

Production values are exactly what the pros invest in. Separating the signal from the noise is where the value proposition lies.

7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Separating the signal from the noise is where the value proposition lies."

Perfectly put, Robb.

Joe W, I don't know what newspaper you are reading, but that's a huge generalization you're making. You won't see very many PR photos or pictures that simply show what someone looks like in our newspaper.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Rich Boudet said...

It's also important to note that the Sun-Times probably still wants professional photography - they just want it from freelancers. They don't want to pay benefits and full-time wages to a staff of photogs. And no one in another part of journalism should think they are immune. It's not only about iPhones.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Scott Bryant said...

The Sun-Times logic in firing their ENTIRE photo staff (and others who have taken the same approach or are thinking about it) is flawed for so many reasons.

The logic of hiring freelance photogs is flawed if the Sun-Times sticks with their current freelance rates – $60 for a general assignment and $90 for a sports assignment. No photographer can make a living freelancing at those rates. Posters in sports photography (one of the most specialized forms of photography that you simply CAN'T shoot with an iPhone) forums are laughing at the rates. One said he wouldn't even get out of bed for that amount of money.

A TRUE professional includes expenses such as insurance, retirement, equipment costs, etc. in the fees they charge. It should cost MORE to hire freelancers than to pay a staffer. Newspapers have gotten away with paying low rates for freelancers because they used freelancers to supplement the work of their staffers, and because there have been enough hungry young photographers looking for their breaks to accept those rates in exchange for experience.

That dynamic totally changes when you no longer have staffers. Folks who pay freelancers such low rates aren't really getting professional work at all. Real professionals won't bother with those wages. Even young photographers just starting out won't bother much since there is no longer a chance of landing a staff job by doing great work for peanuts. There's little-to-no upside to taking news or sports assignments, which tend to be time consuming, for such low compensation – at least for a professional.

So you're stuck with amateurs who do photography as a hobby on the side, happy to get a byline or a sideline pass – most of which have no training in or no notion at all of journalistic practice and ethics.

By laying off their ENTIRE photo staff, the Sun-Times (and their ilk) are truly risking their credibility as a reliable and credible source of information. And still photographs are an incredibly important source of information.

I read an interview recently with National Geographic great Sam Abell. He's an old school photojournalist who embraces the new democratic landscape in photography. Here's a link:


Best comment: "Yes, there are billions more photographers, and billions more photographs every day, but who’s building up a point of view? Who’s photographing with intention, and whose body of work will sustain itself and survive?"

And THAT'S what separates the work done by a professional photojournalist from the noise created by billions of hobbyists and writers with iPhones. THAT'S what matters and what the bean counters seem to be missing.

I think the still photograph is being woefully undervalued in the role it plays in communication – especially online. Sorry, but no other medium of communication resonates like a still image. No other medium is capable of producing understanding and making emotional connections between a subject and an audience as quickly and profoundly as a still photograph.

Photographs are still the front porch for the news. They are calling cards. The first invitation to be engaged by a variety of content. And the quality of the photographic content is an announcement to the audience about how serious we are about engaging them.

And if the goal is to emphasize video a bit more, who in the newsroom is probably best equipped, in training and creativity, to lead the charge forward into digital multimedia? Writers or photographers?

And perhaps publishers and newsroom managers should note this: the brain is hardwired for still photography, not video:


I think the ending sentiment of this post is correct. How will we fund quality journalism in the future and convince the public of its necessity? That’s the REAL problem to be solved, in my opinion.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Bernard said...

"Further, publishers and broadcasters can assert, quite legitimately in most cases, that the use of a newsworthy picture pulled off the web is fair use, and, thus, exempt from copyright protection in the first place."

Have there been any test cases that show this to be true?

What about these examples say I put up 10 photos, can a newspaper take one without compensation if I put them up in
(a) personal facebook
(b) business blog
(c) newspaper

9:15 PM  

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